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Steel Winch Cable Vs. Synthetic Rope

Posted in How To on December 1, 2012
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When it comes to steel cable versus synthetic rope for winch recovery, there seems to be a sharp divide amongst enthusiasts. No matter where you go, people seem to be arguing the merits of both types, making it hard for someone not in the know to get a definitive answer. Over the past few years, synthetic rope’s popularity has skyrocketed and it’s now widely available, but is it the right choice for you?

Steel Cable
For as long as winching has been around, the industry standard has been aircraft-grade steel cable, which is more durable than synthetic rope, but comes at the expense of weight and strength. Steel is the perfect type of line to use in highly abrasive terrains, such as in mud, rocks, and sand, as it is less prone to fraying and abrading. Steel is also more affordable than synthetic and requires less maintenance.

However, steel cable can rust, as well as develop sharp burrs as it wears, requiring gloved hands to operate. Some wheelers recommend keeping a light coating of chain oil or WD-40 on the line to protect the steel and disperse moisture, preventing rust. Steel is also prone to kinks, making it harder to spool up on the drum properly and decreasing strength.

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Synthetic Rope
Synthetic rope came on the scene in the mid-’90s, when it was introduced as an alternative to steel cable. The original synthetic winch ropes were based on the durable synthetic lines used in the maritime and fishing industries. Made from hi-tech polyethylene, synthetic rope is considerably safer than steel cable and is now mandatory in most major sanctioned off-road events.

This is the 3⁄8-in Spydura synthetic rope that comes standard on the Warn 9.5cti-s. It is 100-feet long.

Significantly lighter than steel cable, synthetic rope doesn’t store as much energy as a steel cable does, meaning it won’t become as much of a projectile if it breaks. Being lighter than steel cable also gives it an advantage on vehicles that are sensitive to weight, especially over the front axle. Synthetic rope’s high flexibility and low weight make it much easier to handle than steel with the added benefit of not kinking the way steel cable can. Also, it won’t develop the burrs that can occur on steel cable, making it safer to handle without gloves, but careless use will cause knots.

While synthetic rope has a higher breaking strength than a comparable steel cable, that doesn’t mean it is unbreakable. However, unlike steel cable, if a synthetic line does break, it can be repaired in the field with proper braiding techniques. Synthetic line also has the advantage of floating, which could make a recovery in a mud hole or body of water easier.

While synthetic rope is strong, it isn’t invincible. We’ve also seen synthetic worked to its limit at Top Truck, and while they may not store as much energy as steel cables, synthetic ropes can still whip around when they snap.

So, if synthetic rope is so great, why would you run anything else? Well, synthetic does have its share of disadvantages. Drawbacks include susceptibility to UV exposure, chemicals, heat, and abrasion, all of which can substantially weaken the rope. Because of this, quality synthetic ropes come with a protective anti-abrasion sleeve that slides the length of the rope as well as a special protective coating. To protect against heat buildup from the drum brake, either a heat sleeve or more heat-resistant material can be used on the portion of the line that wraps around the drum. Another disadvantage to synthetic line is that it can hold water, which can add weight or even freeze in cold weather, turning your winch in to a useless ice block. It is important to note that not all synthetic lines are made equal and not all synthetic ropes will have these features.

Synthetic ropes can snag on the corners of a roller fairlead, or on any burrs left behind by a roller fairlead that was previously matched with steel cable. Because of this, synthetic ropes should only be used with a Hawse fairlead.

Synthetic lines should also be properly maintained. Because grains of sand and dirt can work their way in to the rope’s core, it is important to care for the line by spooling it out and washing it from time to time. This is especially important after using the rope in sandy or muddy conditions where abrasive material can work its way in to the rope, cutting at the core and weakening it from the inside out.

The Verdict
In the end, as long as they are in good condition, either style of rope will be able to do the job and recover your rig. It really comes down to personal preference and the terrain you traverse, as well as the level of maintenance you want to dedicate to your winch rope.

The lighter weight of synthetic is helpful in competition events such as our own TTC, where time is of the essence.

Keep in mind that whatever rope you ultimately choose, practicing safe winching techniques is just as important with synthetic rope as it is with wire cable. One great resource, The Basic Guide To Winching Techniques, is available on Warn’s website:


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